Costume Designers Are the Real West Coast Fashionistas

CDG . . . To any normal living breathing fashion person, those 3 initials could only stand for one iconic thing: Comme des Garcons. But here in Hollywood, where fashion’s always related to entertainment in some way or another (even when it’s bad – no, especially when it’s bad) – CDG stands for The Costume Designers Guild.

The boring explanation: The Costume Designers Guild is the union (Local 892) of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE): Costume Designers, Assistant Costume Designers and Costume Illustrators for film, television, music videos and commercials.

The more relevant fashion explanation: CDG is the twenty year old organizing body for every major modern costume designer you’ve ever heard of: Colleen Atwood (Alice in Wonderland, Sweeney Todd, Memoirs of a Geisha, Chicago) Ann Roth (The Hours, The Talented Mr. Ripley), Bob Mackie (Cher, Diana Ross, The Love Boat), Sandy Powell (Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator, Velvet Goldmine, Carol, Cinderella), etc etc.

Of course, before great American and European fashion came to Hollywood (around the early fifties, when Givenchy started dressing Audrey Hepburn), the classic costume designers of yore: Edith Head (All About Eve, Roman Holiday, Sabrina ), Irene Sharaff (Funny Girl, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Cleopatra) Orry-Kelly (Gypsy, Some Like it Hot) were the ones who made the iconic Oscar gowns of Natalie Wood, Grace Kelly, etc.) Before fashion designers became frock stars, Hollywood costume designers had the biggest effect on American – and international – fashion; all little girls wanted to dress like glamorous actresses in the movies. Movie imagery is what moved merch. Even major hair styling trends started with movies (Mia Farrow’s Vidal Sassoon pixie in Rosemary’s Baby comes to mind)– and eventually, television (need I say more then Jennifer Aniston?).

Doug Jones
Photo: Merle Ginsberg

This week, I attended the annual Costume Designers Guild Awards – this one being it’s 20th anniversary – and event I always look forward to – not for who wins – but for sartorial people watching. The CGDA, as the event’s known, is always a welcome frilly fantastical flamboyant break from status quo Hollywood so-called “fashion” events. When you go to other Hollywood awards shows/parties, you see two things: 1/fabulously dressed actresses, wearing designer ready to wear or couture gowns, chosen by stylists, or, 2/very badly, blandly or cheaply (or both) dressed everyone else, since they wear jeans or leggings every other day of the year.

Now, when you go to Hollywood mainstream real fashion events: runway shows, store openings (McQueen recently moved from Melrose to Rodeo Drive) – or even last week’s 50th Anniversary of Mr. Chow’s extravaganza (local fashion stars China Chow in Junya Watanabe for Comme des Garcons, Anjelica Huston in Pamela Barish, Anne Crawford in Rick Owens) – you see stylists/artists/socialites/big shoppers/rappers/music biz types and of course, actresses -wearing very expensive designer clothes they got at Barneys or the Rick Owens store on LaBrea Avenue.

An Crabtree costume designer
Photo: Merle Ginsberg

This is why the CGD’s are so exceptional: when you go to the Costume Designers Guild Awards, you aren’t going to see chic – or sexy – or even – designer. Costume designers march to the beat of their own drums – and sewing machines. They’re going for drama – theatrics – they flourish in a heightened reality, creating characters, not fashion icons (like celebrity stylists). They’re telling stories – not looking for compliments. Or rich husbands. Or paparazzi snaps. So what they wear reflects their own stories, their own imaginations, their own influences. If you’re looking for wildly original looks in New York, you’ll cruise the East Village. In L.A, you’ll cruise the CDGA.

And just to add to the fashion world synergy/cred, CDGA 20 was sponsored by Harper’s Bazaar, The Outnet and Westfield Malls.

Mayes C. Rubio costume designer
Photo: Merle Ginsberg

This year, I was surprised to see these female and male swan/divas all wearing black. Turns out, famed modern costumers Ellen Mirojnick (Wall Street, Fatal Attraction) and Arianne Phillips (W.E., Kingsmen, and Madonna’s stylist) put out an APB to guild membership that they should all pay their non-colorful respects to the current #metoo and Time’sUp dress code. Still, even in a sea of film noir (double entendre), there was plenty of eye-popping originality. For instance, tv costumer Dawn Ritz floated by in a black column gown and a makeshift headdress of rainbow colored paper mache butterflies – now, that’s what I call sartorial rebellion! Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale costumer Ane Crabtree threw a black corset mini dress over leggings, and added black flowers at the neck and long leather gloves (never mind the drama of her shaved head). Get Out costume designer Nadine Haders popped on a black gaucho hat to liven up her simple black dress. British Game of Thrones costumer Michele Clapton (who of course, won) donned a puffed sleeve black midi, granny boots and hoop earrings nearly the size of Jon Snow’s direwolf.

Sara Sensoy costume designer
Photo: Merle Ginsberg

Thor: Ragnarak costumer Mayes C. Rubeo doctored up her black fringe Stella McCartney. “That’s what we costumers do!,” she told me. “We can’t go plain, no matter what the dress code. I added the embroidery and beading myself. I always do add-ons.” Music video costumer Sara Sensoy (Marilyn Manson, Florence and The Machine) was probably the evening’s best dressed costume designer – let’s call it, most interestingly dressed – in a crowd of eccentrics: she took an already avant garde pin- striped Comme des Garcon-like long dress and goth-ed it up even more: “I added the chains, the pins; I guess I went a bit heavy. And this hat is a leather fez from Morocco – I was going for a YSL aesthetic.”

Kerry Washington
Photo: Getty Images

And the actors who come to present upped their game a bit, too. Hunky Rufus Sewell, there to present, wore a very traditional Cary Grant looking tux with bow tie. Tall drink of water Shape of Water actor Doug Jones had on a one of a kind vintage steam punk coat from a mail order steam punk catalogue (yes, they do exist). Lily Tomlin, who presented, told me, “I dug out this old black Chanel jacket that I loved – till I read that she was a Nazi lover. Please don’t tell anyone! But Ms. Fonda told me never to toss out Chanel.” Her ruby earrings turned out to be costume – “they belonged to Mae West – someone gave them to me. Do you think Mae West wouldn’t wear paste??” The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel star Rachel Brosnahan did her 1950’s fit n’ flare character proud: she put a tweed strapless fit n flare midi dress on top of a black v neck. And divine diva-swan Kerry Washington, who got the CDG Spotlight Award, was resplendent in a spring 2018 floral Dolce & Gabbana tulle gown based in black, but strewn with giant 3 D red rosettes. Looking back at the high fashion effect of her show Scandal – the Olivia Pope look sold more Prada bags than Sex and the City – Washington credited the show’s costumer Lyn Paolo with making her waist always nipped – “even when I was pregnant. She got Armani couture pants, cut out the waist, and added expandable fabric. I waddled a lot – but I still looked chic. And not pregnant.”

Eva Longoria, who presented Washington with her award, clearly didn’t get the #metoo memo. The pregnant star looked a little embarrassed in a blush satin Nili Lotan slipdress, with what looked like a baby pink satin bathrobe over it. Well, okay. Pitch Perfect actress Anna Camp looked terrific in a coral tiered J. Mendel gown – but a little sheepish at missing the dress code. Hey, it’s one way to stand out in that crowd.

The night’s big winners – outside of Kerry Washington’s Dolce ensemble – included the costume designers of I, Tonya, The Shape of Water (Luis Sequeira beating out likely Oscar winner Mark Bridges, for Phantom Thread), The Crown, Wonder Woman and Game of Thrones.

The funniest presentation of the night, the one that woke up everybody in the Beverly Hilton Ballroom at the end, was done by Sally Field, presenting a career achievement award to costume designer Joanna Johnston (Saving Private Ryan, Forrest Gump, Lincoln). Field dragged a big old white canvas tote bag on stage with her, and whipped out the fuzzy pink sweater she wore when she (as Mama Gump) famously told Forrest Gump that “life is like a box of chocolates.” “It’s such a specific choice for such an important scene — Mama Gump’s death — and it speaks in ways words can’t,” Field said. She also showed off an odd pastiche quilt constructed from pieces of each of Mary Todd Lincoln’s 1860’s gowns, that Johnston made her as a souvenir from that 2012 film.

“All right, who else is going to pull out their quilt?” host of the evening Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin) asked the crowd. Rodriguez herself went the typical young actress route for her look: a metallic slip dress with a slit up the back. When in doubt in Hollywood, wear a metallic slip dress and show a lot of skin. Hardly original –but not everyone can be an original.

Unless they’re a costume designer.

– Merle Ginsberg

She is an award winning writer/journalist/editor, and the New York Times best selling author, who specializes in fashion, beauty, culture, and whole crossover thereof. She’s been a staff writer for Rolling Stone, W Magazine, Women’s Wear Daily, Harper’s Bazaar, and The Hollywood Reporter. She’s also been a contributor to New York Magazine The Cut, the NY Times T Magazine, People, US, Ladies Home Journal, the London Times, Daily Front Row, Marie Claire, NME, Tatler, Variety,Esquire, Cosmopolitan, The Daily Beast, Fashion Network, – and she currently freelances for The New York Post, as well as other publications. Her television career includes entertainment/fashion on air reporting for CNN, Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, ABC News, The Today Show, Good Morning America and the BBC. She was a staff producer/writer for MTV, VH1 and E! Entertainment – and starred on two reality shows: Rupaul’s Drag Race and Bravo’s Launch My Line.



Ernest Schmatolla is publisher of Lookonline since 1994. It is the longest running fashion site on the Internet.

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